Car Accident Fatalities: Wrongful Death Claims in Arizona
Arizona’s laws about wrongful death cases are similar to those in the rest of the country, but each state has its own nuances.
To understand how our laws are applied, it’s important to define what wrongful death really means and to clear up any misconceptions about who can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Wrongful Death: Arizona’s Definition
Throughout the state of Arizona, wrongful death refers to the death of a person who reasonably shouldn’t have passed away.
Only certain people can file a wrongful death lawsuit in Arizona. The right is restricted to:
- Surviving spouses
If there are no surviving relatives or guardians, a wrongful death in Arizona lawsuit can be raised on behalf of the decedent’s estate. These types of suits are further restricted in that you can only file if the person who passed away would’ve had a valid personal injury case if they had survived. It’s always best to talk to a wrongful death lawyer who can evaluate your circumstances and provide you with legal advice.
The statute also permits the commencement of a wrongful death suit even if the death was a criminal act of murder or manslaughter. This means if a drunk driver had multiple DUIs and still chose to drive, he or she could be charged with murder or manslaughter for the fatal car accident.
A wrongful death suit is not part of the criminal proceedings, which is brought by the state of Arizona. Rather, a wrongful death lawsuit is a private, civil cause of action brought by the deceased’s family. Notably, the burden of proof is less severe in a wrongful death case, so it may be won even if the criminal case is unsuccessful.
A wrongful death suit most often happens in the case of a work or automobile accident caused by negligence. Negligence occurs when someone fails to act like most others would, and that failure causes harm to another person. When that harm results in a loss of life, the deceased parents, spouse, and children are permitted to recover for that negligence for their bereavement. Where none of these exist, the estate of the deceased may bring the lawsuit.
What to Do if Your Loved One Passed Away
It is hard to think about the what-ifs in a situation like yours. It is equally difficult to think about the future. As soon as you’re able, find a wrongful death lawyer who offers free initial consultations. Together you can make sense of your case and begin moving forward.
In the immediate term, you may need to start collecting documentation to prepare your case. Along with retaining medical bills, funeral expenses and such, you can start with gathering information about the lost earnings as a result of your loved one’s death.
Types Of Damages You May Seek
Surviving family members often seek damages in wrongful death in Arizona cases. Unfortunately, they’ll have to deal with the pain of losing a loved one for the rest of their lives. But an award can help those survivors pay for medical, funeral and burial expenses, as well as make up for the loss of income and the loss of services to the family.
In a serious or fatal accident, EMT services and a trip to the hospital would likely have incurred large medical expenses. Even with health insurance coverage, these medical expenses usually puts a financial burden on the surviving family members. Documenting all medical expenses will help you support your wrongful death claim and receive compensation from the at-fault driver.
The value of services provided is calculated in a similar respect. You will need to provide an exhaustive list of services that your loved one provided to you and your family in the home. The expert your attorney hires may have a questionnaire to help you in this respect.
Past and Future Economic Support
Because this is a calculation of the economic benefits your loved one rendered to you and your family, his or her future earnings are offset by how much of them would have been personally consumed.
In calculating lost earnings, the expert will need information from your about your loved one’s work life.
Here is just a short list of what needs to be collected:
- Year-end pay stubs for the past few years
- W-2s and income tax returns
- Union contracts
- Retirement plans
- Fringe benefits
- Any upcoming promotions and raises he or she would have received
This gives us an amount for what would have been contributed to the family. To calculate the consumption offset the expert will need household spending records and the earning history of his or her spouse.
You and your loved ones may also be entitled to recover for the lost value of an inheritance property that your deceased loved one probably would have inherited had he not died and that you would have thus enjoyed the use of.
Loss of Consortium
The loss of consortium refers to the loss of physical and emotional intimacy by the deceased spouse. This includes the loss of care and companionship of children, spouses and parents, and the loss of guidance for your loved one’s children. These damages seek to compensate you for the pain and suffering caused by the unexpected death of your loved one. The loss of household services can also be calculated to a dollar amount based on hours worked.
You can’t put a price tag on grief. But compensation for damages can be used to help pay for therapy and to maintain the survivors’ lifestyle as well. In some cases, punitive damages are also awarded to grieving families in wrongful death cases.
While the damages listed above are all compensatory damages, punitive damages are about punishing the wrongdoer for alleged actions, omissions or negligent conduct. The purpose of punitive damages is specific and general deterrence. Specific deterrence keeps the individual offender from performing the same type of act that led to the harm. General deterrence sends a message to others that that sort of behavior is not tolerated. Punitive damages tries to accomplish both.
Who May Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
To file such a suit, you must be either the parent, guardian, spouse or child of your lost loved one.
Unfortunately, siblings, cousins, grandparents and other family members may not bring this type of lawsuit. Common law spouses and other partners are also excluded from the scope of the statute.
For children who have lost a parent, the child’s legal guardian may file the suit on the child’s behalf. Children who have been legally adopted cannot bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of their biological parents, as adoptions extinguish the legal parent-child relationship between them.
The law permits only certain family members of the deceased to bring such a suit:
- Parents (biological or adoptive)
- Children (minor or adult, biological or adopted)
- Spouses (same-sex or different-sex)
- A personal representative (of the estate of the deceased, or any of the above)
If there is a question of familial relationship, the burden will be on you and your attorney to establish the relationship. This can be done through any admissible evidence under Arizona’s evidence rules, but DNA testing is not necessarily required.
It is important for you and your family to determine who will bring the case to court. Only one of the family members permitted to bring the suit may do so. Other potential beneficiaries may, however, join the suit with their own attorney to help ensure that their interests are represented.
For instance, if there are multiple claims with divorced parents or multiple children, all these claims will be consolidated into one case.
The plaintiff in that single suit represents every beneficiary who has a right to compensation. Whomever among your family brings the case must act in good faith and distribute the jury award or settlement amongst the other beneficiaries. That amount is split in proportion to the damages each individual has sustained.
How Much Time Is Available to File?
The statute of limitations for most wrongful death cases is two years from the date of the death.
This is important because the untimely death may not occur for some time after the incident — even years later. For example, a spouse’s wrongful death claim brought within two years of her husband’s death, but eight years after the incident that caused her husband harm, was considered within the statutory time limit.
However, in cases of workers’ compensation or where the negligent actor was a government entity, you have only one year to file the lawsuit.
While a lawsuit is likely the last thing on your mind in the wake of the death of a loved one, it is important that you take steps to document and file your case as soon as possible.
If the deadline has already passed, the court will simply refuse to hear your case.
What Happens In a Wrongful Death Claim
Generally, a wrongful death claim will follow a similar path as a personal injury suit for negligence.
Your attorney will show the defendant’s negligence by proving that there was a duty, a breach of said duty, and that breach caused the injury.
Duty refers to a duty of care that the defendant was expected to show in performing or omitting an act, such as driving. Breach of that duty is just what it says, failing to perform that act with the requisite care. For instance, causing an automobile accident due to inattention or distracted driving.
In personal injury claims, an attorney would also need to show damages. In such an action there is no liability without monetary damages.
However, in a wrongful death suit, the jury’s broad latitude allows it to find liability and still award zero damages. Such a ruling, though — if clearly out of line with the evidence — may be overturned on an appeal.
Arizona is a comparative fault state. For a wrongful death, this means the fault will apportion to all of the individuals and entities involve in an action. Once the fault is divided, so too will damages be attributed according to a fault. For example, if an employee defendant was 10% at fault and his employer 90% at fault, the damages owed would be split between them accordingly.
What The Jury Must Consider
An important distinction in wrongful death cases is the exceedingly broad latitude granted to the jury. Arizona law gives juries extremely wide discretion to consider all manner of evidence and acts to determine what damages are “fair and just.”
Moreover, the jury can consider any mitigating or aggravating circumstances in its determination of a ‘fair and just’ reward. This can include the behavior of you and other beneficiaries, as when an abusive spouse denies any damages whatsoever as well as punitive damages.
The jury can also consider the character of the deceased as well as the relationship with the beneficiaries. Another thing to consider is how he or she spent money, age, gender, life expectancy and other factors. This is notable because the defendant’s attorney may attempt to cast doubt on the quality of your relationship with your deceased loved one.
A jury may award an amount to compensate a plaintiff and the decedent’s beneficiaries for the following:
- The loss of love, affection, companionship, care, protection and guidance since the death.
- The pain, grief, sorrow, anguish, stress, shock and mental suffering already experienced, and reasonably probable to be experienced in the future.
- The income and services already lost as a result of the death, and that are reasonably probable to lost in the future.
- The reasonable expenses of funeral and burial.
- The reasonable expenses of necessary medical care and services for the injuries that resulted in the death.
The loss of a loved one is never easy and is even more difficult when they unexpectedly leave us. The court and wrongful death laws exist to, in some measure, ease the suffering from that incalculable loss.
While a court case may be the last thing on your mind, it is important that you take steps to preserve your case so you do not add undue financial hardship on top of your emotional loss.
Settlements in Wrongful Death Claims
In order to settle, all other beneficiaries must consent to the agreement.
Because of this, you and your attorney have a duty to attempt to contact all potential beneficiaries, which can become difficult when it comes to children of prior marriages or distant parents.
If they fail to do so the other beneficiaries may later ask the court to undo the settlement.
If your loved one left behind a minor child, the probate court or a guardian ad litem appointed by the probate court must approve the settlement.
Once the value of your damages has been decided with finality, these are paid directly to family members after the court has determined the amount and split of the damage award.
Moving Forward After a Sudden and Unexpected Loss
It is never easy to lose someone you love. It’s even more difficult if he or she was suddenly taken away by someone else’s negligent and irresponsible actions.
We understand you need time to grieve and mourn over the loss of your loved one, and we hope you find this article helpful in finding a path forward.
If you wish to talk more with us, please feel free to reach out to us. We will do everything in our power to help you and your family.